A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at CUNYstruggle.org Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.

Stenographers, Megaphones, or Journalists?

Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook status:

The New York Times gives us ‘news’ on the CTU strike and includes this:

‘Mayor Rahm Emanuel has focused on trying to improve the quality of public education, with a longer school day and more meaningful teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, meanwhile, has been intent on reinstating a 4 percent pay increase, and protecting those who are laid off when failing schools are closed.’

Yup, this is ‘news’ reporting all right. Just the news.

From: (‘Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund is Running Dry‘, NYT, September 16, 2012)

I hope it is clear what the problem is with the ‘reporting’ above.

And over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the too-cool-for-school endeavors of Mr. Peter Thiel. Today, the good folks at Techdirt have a response, which captures most of my central reactions to it.  ( I have a visceral reaction to showboats like Thiel that I will set aside for now.) To wit, it reads like:

[A] retweet of corporate PR.

In short, the New York Times article–by Caitlin Kelly–flirts with reading like a poorly edited press release. And the piece I linked to above–by Mary Williams Walsh–provides evidence too, of having been copied from Rahm Emanuel‘s manifestos.

We are, folks, seemingly confronted with creatures all too common in today’s journalistic world: the faithful stenographer and the eager megaphone.

A little story before I go any further. Some sixteen or so years ago, a good friend’s cousin came visiting to New York City. I met him a few times at parties and dinners and struck up some light conversation about his work at a pharmaceutical company’s press and public relations department. His job was to write up press releases based on material provided to him by company scientists, and then send them on to media outlets like magazines and newspapers.  This being 1996, he did most of his work the old-fashioned way, faxing one-pagers to a list of numbers every day. Crib a little, write a little, fax a lot. He was good at his work, very prolific in the releases he put out, and he was paid well. All seemed hunky-dory.

But all was not well. For as my new acquaintance confessed to me, he was alarmed at the rate at which his press releases appeared in print. Note, I did not say ‘material from his press releases’; rather, quite simply, all too many ‘journalists’ at the receiving end of his fax blasts were simply taking the press release, removing his name, making some minor cosmetic alterations and then simply the running the release as their article. Job done. On to the next ‘story’.

The New York Times has been honest enough to admit that in the past it was part of the cheerleading crew that failed to flag the Bush administration’s ghastly, criminal, war on Iraq. But the lack of critical appraisal shown then seemingly still afflicts the Grey Lady. And they aren’t alone in this abdication of journalistic responsibility either: as responses to the US administration’s ‘lede’ on the Benghazi attacks show, all too many journalists today are simply uncritical purveyors of whatever nonsense is sent their way from corporate and political sources. The next time you read a debate about the indispensability of the journalist in the context of today’s blog-happy world, keep that in mind. (These ramblings  remind me I need to get back to reviewing David Coady‘s excellent What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012), which provides a spirited and philosophically rigorous defense of the independent blogger.)

The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

Reading responses to the CTU strike has dismayed me: that there is so much hostility directed at teachers and their unions in a country where the path to middle-class success used to be understood as a good public education, but which is now directly under attack from a shrieking horde of carpetbaggers and rent-seekers. (Thankfully, the good folks of Chicago seem to be squarely behind the CTU.)

I’m stunned too by the  unquestioning reliance on the notion that teacher evaluation is the key to resolving the supposed crisis of public education.  When so much remains to be done for school students how can evaluation, a poorly understood notion at the best of times, become the centerpiece of reform? And indeed, given the pedagogical controversies that surround testing as a means of evaluating students, how can those scores be turned into a vehicle for evaluating their teachers? If someone had suggested to me that my 8th grade teachers be fired because of my scores in tests that year, I’d have been shocked; their teaching had nothing to do with my poor performance. And the idea that Aziz Akhtar, my high school chemistry teacher–a maestro whose explanation of the structure of benzene rings attained an almost poetic quality–should have been blamed for my slacking off and scoring poorly in the 11th grade chemistry exam fills me with horror.

What a student ‘gets’ from a teacher is not the kind of thing that is easily measured in quantifiable scores; more often than not, if a teacher is to be evaluated, it is best done by another teacher, by a process of observation, peer mentoring, and consistent, constructive feedback and criticism. Teaching is part science, part art; we are still a long way from understanding how learning proceeds and how teaching succeeds. To shoehorn this process into a ready-made quasi-Taylorist template is sheer folly. If school reform is to be carried out, it will be a necessarily slow and expensive process, and not one that can be hurried along with a slap on its rump from Michelle Rhee and her cohort.

Note: I’m often asked, ‘Would you like to teach in schools’? (i.e., high school or lower). My answer has always been, ‘Not on your life.’ It’s too hard: I simply cannot imagine dealing with the kinds of issues school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. (Disciplinary for instance; I like dealing with students that are a bit more ‘mature’, ‘more adult’). Selfishly, I would like to be able to teach material that sometimes impacts my so-called ‘research.’ Thus, I stand back, and admire those that can take it on. I’ve met plenty of school teachers over the years and I’m impressed by their grace under fire, their careful navigation of the shoals of disciplinary issues, their deep commitment to their wards, their working in poorly equipped and funded school districts. Right from the time I was first offered an opportunity as a substitute teacher in Newark, NJ, I have turned away from school teaching. It’s fundamental to our society, but on this one, I have let others take the bullet.

The New York Times Joins the CTU-Bashing Party

This morning, I posted the following on my Facebook status:

I wouldn’t use today’s NYT Editorial on the CTU strike as a window-cleaning schmatta.

Unfortunately, editorials in influential newspapers cannot be dismissed so easily. So let’s take a closer look.

The editorial begins unpromisingly:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.

Notice how it is the ‘idea’ that is problematic, thus indicting the agent of the strike i.e., the union. A more promising start might have been:

City administrations should never let negotiations with teachers get to the point where they feel compelled to strike.

Because, you know, city administration policies can also hurt the ‘children’ that the New York Times is so worried about. Let’s move on. (The next sentence, incidentally, undermines the seriousness of the situation by putting it down to a personality clash between Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis.)

The Times is quite sure that the union is opposed to ‘sensible policy changes,’ ones that,

[A]re increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Well. I hadn’t realized aping bad policies implemented elsewhere was such a good idea. And perhaps the Times could evaluate these ‘sensible’ changes for us? Thankfully, it does tell us that Mr. Emanuel rescinded a 4-percent pay raise last year, and that he, in keeping with the current fashion of diminishing organized labor in every way possible, by-passed the collective bargaining process to implement a longer school day.

The Times’ ‘why don’t you follow the lemmings’ query is on display again when it comes to noting the union’s resistance to ‘an evaluation system in which a teacher’s total rating depends partly on student test scores’:

Half the states have agreed to create similar teacher evaluation systems that take student achievement into account in exchange for grants under the federal Race to the Top program or for greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law. Such systems are already up and running in many places.

The Times does not stop to consider that such evaluations and ratings might be flawed and that the CTU’s stance might make more pedagogical sense. No sir; this is a fait accompli, fall in line!

The primary beef, in any case, over and above everything else, is that the union is ‘holding the city hostage’ by not bringing forward its ‘legitimate suggestions’ (if any) for improving the evaluation system in the right way. I hate to break the news to the New York Times, but the power to strike is organized labor’s weapon of last resort, one only to be used when faced with a recalcitrant and obdurate management. That same management, if not confronted with that threat, can all too easily stonewall its way into a resolution that favors it alone (and not the city’s students).

The editorial continues,

What stands out about this strike, however, is that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary.

But it is only the union that is required to make concessions.

Moreover, Ms. Lewis, who seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system, seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved.

Pardon me, I thought this was about a ‘personality clash’ between two folks. Why is Ms. Lewis’ personality the only one to be indicted?

If the strike goes on for much longer, the union could pay a dear price in terms of public opinion.

And the editorial page of the nation’s most prominent newspapers is helping that process get started.

Blaming Unions: The Easiest Game in Town

And so, here we go. A teacher’s union is on strike–more specifically the Chicago Teacher’s Union–and the bewailing begins: the strike is hurting students; the teachers should put their selfish interests last; get back to work, don’t you know you are hurting the students? As I pointed out a few days ago, if there is one thing that unites our political parties and leads to a great, Kumbaya, sea-to-shining-sea holding of hands across party divides it is this: teachers are to blame for the supposed educational crisis in public education, and they, and their unions alone, should reform if our schools are to get back to work and get on with the business of making our students into the finest, able to compete globally with all those busy eating their lunches.

I have no doubt students are being hurt by the strike. I was the ‘victim’ of two teachers’ strikes myself: once in my first undergraduate  year when faculty at Delhi University went on strike for two months, and then again, in my second undergraduate year, when they went on strike for three months. By the end of the second one, I had lost interest in going back to attend classes, and skipped the rest of the year to study on my own for final exams. I did the same thing in the third year (there were no strikes, but I skipped most classes anyway). Needless to say, I did terribly in my undergraduate degree. (I wasn’t a terribly diligent student in any case, but I’m going to blow past that for now.)

Back then, like most around me, I blamed the teacher’s union. I knew little about the university administration and the prolonged crisis in negotiations between teachers and them, about governmental funding for higher education. My view of the world was narrow, immature and restricted: the teachers were the ones not reporting to work, they must be lazy, they must be selfish, they must, surely, bear all the blame.  I knew little about the poor salaries paid to my faculty (though I had an inkling of the poor conditions they labored under).  The teachers were visible; the university administration was not. There was a bull’s-eye painted on their union banner, and I aimed for it.

My memories of this reaction to the 1984-1985 strikes colored my responses to any mention of the possibility of a strike during union chapter meetings here at Brooklyn College. (A strike at CUNY has always, always, been a very distant possibility.) I remembered, all too well, the visceral, angry, poorly-directed backlash against them. But by then, I was a teacher myself, and had found out just what hard work it was (and the work of schoolteachers is orders of magnitude harder than that of university faculty), I had grown up, and understood a little more of the ecology of the university, its embedding in broader socio-economic-political realities. I had come to understand that if a teacher’s union went on strike, it represented a desperate, backs-to-the-wall measure of last resort.  Teachers would always find a way to keep coming to work, somehow, precisely because we knew students depended on us.   What they hoped for, more than anything else, was that those that paid their salaries, and controlled the destiny of students just as much, would participate in some, even if not all, of that concern. The burden of caring for the students rested on them too.

The reaction to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike will be revealing: those that lazily trot out the ‘teachers need to get back to work’ line in preference to mounting any critique of the Chicago city administration will show, to me at least,  that facile scapegoating is still the easiest game in town.